Centenarian Celebrities include Hitler’s favorite actor and The Sweetheart of Mexico

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, October 3rd, 2011

Bob Hope and his wife Dolores had two big things in common, they were both performers and they both lived to over 100. Hope died about six weeks into his 100th year, Dolores died just last month, at the age of 102.

Johannes Heesters, born December 5, 1903, is the world’s oldest famous performer. He was Hitler’s favorite actor.

Their longevity is quite an accomplishment, considering the list of famous centenarian performers has just ten names.

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One of them is Luise Rainer, born January 12, 1910 and nicknamed the “Viennese Teardrop”, for a weepy scene in the 1936 musical film The Great Ziegfeld. For this she won an Academy Award. The following year, she won another, for her role as an unattractive Chinese farm wife in The Good Earth, a film about the hardships of life in a Chinese farming village. She was the first person ever to win two consecutive Oscars. Some filmmakers anticipated she would become another Greta Garbo but Rainer lasted just three years in Hollywood. “We made you,” MGM boss Louis B. Mayer reportedly said. “And we are going to kill you.” She became the first example of “the Oscar curse.” Nonetheless, in 1983, she appeared in an episode of The Love Boat and in 1997 she appeared in the film The Gambler. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Always love. Always love…” she said in a recent interview, when asked what made her most happy in life. “[In love] you fly, like a bird, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. But what I think is also wonderful, and something that is getting lost to a great degree, is the waiting.”

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Lupita Tovar, born July 27, 1910 in Oaxaca, is the oldest living Mexican born Hollywood star. While acting in a school play in Mexico City she was discovered by Robert Flaherty, director of the world’s first documentary, about a traditional Inuit family hunting walrus and making sealskin clothing. Tovar starred in a handful of 1930s talkies, appearing beside people such as Douglas Fairbanks, the original Zorro. She also starred in a Spanish version of Dracula, a silent film entitled The Cat Creeps and Santa, Mexico’s first talkie. The latter film is about a young girl growing up in a small town outside Mexico City. When the soldier who swooned her leaves, her family rejects her and she is expelled from town. She finds shelter in a whorehouse where she is mistreated by a bullfighter named Jarameno and silently loved by a blind pianist named Hipol. The film was a smash hit. Tovar earned the nickname, The Sweetheart of Mexico and the government issued “Santa” postage stamps. Rainer married the producer of the Spanish Dracula, a Czech émigré named Paul Kohner. The family is still tied to Hollywood, grandsons Chris and Paul Weitz produced the film American Pie.

The oldest famous performer is Johannes Heesters, born December 5, 1903, in the Netherlands. Now age 107, Heesters has been performing for an astonishing 90 years. In his early years he specialized in Viennese operetta, making his stage debut in a 1934 play called The Beggar Student. His most famous role was that of a suitor named Count Danilo Danilovitsch, in The Merry Widow. Hitler loved the play, he reportedly claimed Heesters as his favorite actor. Heesters performed personally for Hitler, and at concentration camps, including the notorious Dachau. He was placed on the Gottbegnadeten List, a collection of some 1,041 artists considered crucial to Nazi culture. Heesters denied ever performing at concentration camps and brought a libel suit case against a Dachau inmate named Volker Kuhn who spoke publicly about Heester’s involvement. Kuhn, who worked for the SS while in Dachau, claims he distinctly remembers pulling the curtain to begin Heesters performance one evening back in 1941. Heesters admitted he visited the camp but says he never performed. He lost his libel suit, not because the court found Kuhn’s allegations untrue, but because it determined that too much time had passed.

Heesters continues to appear in films and on stage. In December 2006, he celebrated his 103rd birthday with a concert in Vienna. In February 2008, he performed in the Netherlands for the first time in 40 years. Outside, people protested his Nazi associations.

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